Big Picture Science

Big Picture Science


Big Picture Science weaves together a universe of big ideas – from robots to memory to antimatter to dinosaurs. Tune in and make contact with science. We broadcast and podcast every week.


Are Animals Really That Smart?  

You own a cat, or is it vice versa?  Family friendly felines have trained their owners to do their bidding.  Thanks to a successful evolutionary adaptation, they rule your house.

Find out how your cat has you wrapped around its paw.  And it’s not the only animal to outwit us.  Primatologist Frans de Waal shares the surprising intellectual capabilities of chimps, elephants, and bats.  In fact, could it be that we’re simply not smart enough to see how smart animals are?

Plus, the discovery of a fossilized dinosaur brain.  Were those lumbering lizards more clever than we thought?  


Alex Liu – Paleontologist, University of Cambridge, U.K. Abigail Tucker – Author of The Lion in the Living Room: How Housecats Tamed Us and Took Over the World Frans de Waal – Primatologist, psychologist, Emory University, and author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Brain Dust  

Know your brain?  Think again.  Driven by a hidden agenda, powered by an indecipherable web of neurons, and influenced by other brains, your grey matter is a black box.

To "know thyself" may be a challenge, and free will nonexistent, but maybe more technology can shed light on the goings on in your noggin, and the rest of your body.

Find out how tiny implanted sensors called “brain dust” may reveal what really going on.

Plus, the day when your brain is uploaded into a computer as ones and zeros.  Will you still be you?


David Eagleman – Neuroscientist, Stanford University, author of The Brain: the Story of You. Michel Maharbiz – Electrical engineer, University of California, Berkeley.
Weather Vain  

Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Not that they haven’t tried.  History is replete with attempts to control the weather, but we’d settle for an accurate seven-day forecast.

Find out how sophisticated technology might improve accuracy, including predicting the behavior of severe storms.  Plus, the age when “weather forecast” was a laughable idea, but why 19th century rebel scientists pursued it anyway.

Also, a meteorologist who was falsely claimed to have “solved” the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle, and a climate scientist recounts the history of trying to control the weather, and the potential future of geoengineering.


Cliff Mass – Professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Peter Moore – Author of “The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future.” Steven Miller – Meteorologist, Colorado State University Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere. Alan Robock – Meteorologist and climatologist, Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, IPCC lead author.
Skeptic Check: Aliens - The Evidence  

Once again the aliens have landed … in theaters.  It’s no spoiler to say that the latest cinematic sci-fi, Arrival, involves extraterrestrials visiting Earth. 

But for some folks, the film’s premise is hardly shocking.  They’re convinced that the aliens have already come.  But is there any proof that aliens are here now or that they landed long ago to, for example, help build the Egyptian pyramids?

Meanwhile, SETI scientists are deploying their big antennas in an effort to establish that extraterrestrials exist far beyond Earth.

Find out why – even if E.T. is out there – one scientist says making contact is a long shot, while another pioneering scientist involved in SETI remains hopeful  … and could aliens be responsible for the peculiar behavior of two star systems now making the news?


Ben Radford– Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and managing editor of “Skeptical Inquirer Science Magazine” Paul Davies– Physicist, Director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, and author of The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence Jill Tarter– Scientist, Board member, and Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI, SETI Institute
Time Travel Agents  

Hey, let’s meet last week for coffee.  Okay, we can’t meet in the past … yet.  But could it be only a matter of time before we can?  In an attempt to defy the grandfather paradox, scientists try sending a photon back in time to destroy itself. 

Also, find out how teleportation allows particles to instantaneously skip through space-time and why sending humans wouldn’t violate the laws of physics. 

But before you pack your bags for that instantaneous trip to Paris, we need to understand the nature of time.  A physicist offers a testable theory and ponders how it bears on free will.

Plus, feel as if time comes to a standstill when you’re standing in line?  Tricks for altering your perception of time while you wait.  Some businesses already use them on you.  


Richard Muller – Physicist, University of California Berkeley, author of “Now: The Physics of Time”  Seth Lloyd – Professor of quantum mechanical engineering, M.I.T.  Emma Bentley – contributor  David Andrews – Author of, “Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?
Skeptic Check: Science and the Election  

This year’s election is divisive, but one subject enjoys some consensus: science and technology policies are important.  So why aren’t the candidates discussing these issues?  The answers might surprise you.

The organizer of Science Debate, who wants a live debate devoted to science and technology, describes one obstacle to meaningful discussion.  He also shares how the candidates responded to probing questions about science. 

Communication expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson looks back to the televised debate of Kennedy and Nixon to discern trends that have made productive discussion about science nearly impossible today (it didn’t start out that way!)

And, the unique situation in which the man at the top of one political ticket is flat out wrong about science: a physicist describes how Donald Trump’s anti-science position affects the election. 


Shawn Otto - co-founder of, and the author of “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It"   Lawrence Krauss - Professor of theoretical physics at Arizona State University, director of its Origins Project, and a member of Kathleen Hall Jamieson - Professor of communication, University of Pennsylvania, director of the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Author of more than a dozen books on politics and the media, and co-founder of that has a separate page for science:
Venom Diagram  

We all get defensive sometimes.  For some animals, evolution has provided a highly effective mechanism for saying “back off!”.  A puncture by a pair of venom-filled fangs gets the point across nicely. 

But one animal’s poison may be another’s cure.  Some dangerous critters churn out compounds that can be synthesized into life-saving drugs.

Meet the spiny, fanged, and oozing creatures who could help defend us against such illnesses as hypertension and kidney disease. 

Plus, the King of Pain - a scientist who has been stung by more than 80 species of insects in his pursuit of a better understanding of venom’s biochemistry.  Find out which winged stinger scored the highest on his pain index.   

And, why the drug we need most may come from the quietest members of the biosphere: turning to plants for a new generation of antibiotics. 


Owen Maercks – Co-owner, East Bay Vivarium, Berkeley, California  Justin Schmidt – Entomologist, University of Arizona, author of “The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for ScienceChristie Wilcox – author of “Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry”  Cassandra Quave – Ethnobotanist, assistant professor of dermatology, herbarium curator, Emory University 
Sex Post Facto  

Birds do it, bees do it, but humans may not do it for much longer.  At least not for having children.  Relying on sex to reproduce could be supplanted by making babies in the lab, where parents-to-be can select genomes that will ensure ideal physical and behavioral traits.

Men hoping to be fathers should act sooner rather than later.  These same advancements in biotechnology could allow women to fertilize their own eggs, making the need for male sperm obsolete. 

Meanwhile, some animals already reproduce asexually.  Find out how female African bees can opt to shut out male bees intent on expanding the hive.  

Will engineering our offspring have a down side?  Sex creates vital genetic diversity, as demonstrated by evolution of wild animals in urban areas.  Find out how birds, rodents and insects use sex in the city to adapt and thrive.


Menno Schilthuizen  – Biologist and ecologist, at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Leiden University in The Netherlands.   His New York Times op-ed, “Evolution is Happening Faster Than We Thought,” is here. Matthew Webster –  Evolutionary biologist, Uppsala University, Sweden Hank Greely – Law professor and ethicist, Stanford University, who specializes in the ethical, legal and social implications of biomedical technologies.  His book is “The End of Sex and The Future of Reproduction.”

Everyone knows that a big rock did in the dinosaurs, but smaller asteroids are millions of times more common and can also make a violent impact.   Yet unlike the bigger asteroids, we’re not tracking them.  Find out what we’d need to keep an eye on the size of space rocks such as that which exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia.   And how an asteroid whizzed by Earth in late August 2016, only hours after it had been spotted.

Asteroids are the one natural disaster we can defend against, but an economist explains why humans are reluctant to invest in protection against “low probability, high impact” threats. 

Also, how to authenticate that chunk of asteroid that you found in a field and NASA’s first ever return mission to an asteroid.  It plans to bring some fresh samples back to Earth. 


Peter Jenniskens – Senior Research Scientist, SETI Institute David Morrison – Senior Scientist of the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, NASA Ames Research Center Alex Tabarrok – Economist, George Mason University Sharon Cisneros – Mineralogical Research Company, San Jose, California J. L. Galache – Astronomer, Minor Planet Center, Harvard Center for Astrophysics Christina Richey – NASA Planetary scientist, deputy program scientist, OSIRIS-Rex mission
DIY Diagnosis  

Got aches and pains?  Critters in the Cretaceous would have been sympathetic.  A new study reveals that painful arthritis plagued a duck-billed dinosaur.  Scientists impressively diagnosed the animal’s condition without a house call by examining its 70 million-year old bones.

The technology we use for health diagnoses are becoming so sophisticated, some people are prompted to bypass doctors and do it themselves.  Meet a man who had his genome sequenced and then had all 70 gigabytes delivered directly to him so that he could gauge his genetic health.   

Also, practitioners who are trying to improve cognitive function using a battery and a few wires.   Find out the possible risks and benefits of DIY brain stimulation. 


Jennifer Anne - Recent graduate, University of Manchester, studies injuries and diseases in dinosaurs. Carl Zimmer - Science writer, author.  National correspondent for STAT, an online magazine that reports on the frontiers of science and medicine.  His weekly column “Matter,” appears in the New York Times. Peter Simpson-Young - A graduate student at the University of Sydney studying neuroscience. Anna Wexler - Neuroethicist and PhD candidate in the History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society program at MIT.
Are We Over the Moon?  

When astronaut Gene Cernan stepped off the moon in 1972, he didn’t think he’d be the last human ever to touch its surface.  But no one’s been back.  Hear astronaut Cernan’s reaction to being the last man on the moon, the reasons why President Kennedy launched the Apollo program, and why Americans haven’t returned.

Now other countries – and companies – are vying for a bigger piece of the space pie. Find out who – or what – will be visiting and even profiting.  Will the moon become an important place to make money?  

Plus, the moon landing was a great step for “a man,” and “men not machines” make space history.  But what about women?  More than a dozen were qualified for space flight in the early 1960s.  Hear from one of these original “Mercury 13,” and find out why NASA grounded them. 


Gene Cernan – Retired American naval officer, former NASA Astronaut.  John Logsdon – Professor emeritus, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University Al Hallonquist – Aerospace historian Robert Richards – Founder and CEO of Moon Express Sarah Ratley – Former pilot, member of the "Mercury 13" Dan Durda – Planetary scientist, Southwest Research Institute. 
On Defense  

The military is a dangerous calling.  But technology can help out, so researchers are constantly trying to make soldiers safer.  Writer Mary Roach investigates how scientists studying so-called human factors are protecting troops from such aggressive foes as heat, noise, and fatigue.  She also learns how bad odors were once considered a secret weapon.

And while soldiers have long used camouflage to help them blend in, insects may be the original masters of disguise.  A discovery in fossilized amber shows that a variety of bugs employed D.I.Y. camouflaging tricks 100 million years ago.

But where is the defense race headed?  The top-secret branch of the Pentagon whose job is to make tomorrow happen today has some ideas.  A reporter shares DARPA’s plan for augmented super-soldiers.

Plus, do we always need a technological boost to stay safe?  Find out how your innate chemical defense system protects you.  It’s an adrenaline rush!


Mary Roach  - Science reporter, author of “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMichael Engel – Entomologist, invertebrate paleontologist, University of Kansas, and senior curator of its Natural History Museum Annie Jacobsen – Journalist, author of The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency Brian Hoffman – Professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, author of Adrenaline
Musical Universe  

In space, no one can hear you scream, but, using the right instruments, scientists can pick up all types of cosmic vibrations – the sort we can turn into sound.  After a decade of listening, LIGO, a billion-dollar physics experiment, has detected gravitational waves caused by the collision of massive black holes, a brief shaking of spacetime that can be translated into a short squeal. 

We listen to the chirp of black holes crashing into each other and wonder: could the universe contain more than individual sounds, but have actual musical structure? 

A theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist updates the ancient philosophical concept of the Music of the Spheres to probe the most vexing questions confronting modern cosmology.  Find out how the evolution of the universe resembles an improvisational jazz piece, and the musical inspiration John Coltrane drew from Albert Einstein. 


Janna Levin – Physicist, astronomer, Barnard College at Columbia University, author of “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer SpaceStephon Alexander - Professor of physics, Brown University, author of “The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe” 
Raising the Minimum Age  

ENCORE  We all try to fight it: the inexorable march of time. The fountain of youth doesn’t exist, and all those wrinkle creams can’t help. But modern science is giving us new weapons in the fight against aging. So how far are we willing to go?

Hear when aging begins, a summary of the latest biotech research, and how a lab full of youthful worms might help humans stay healthy.

Also, a geneticist who takes a radical approach: collect the DNA that codes for longevity and restructure our genome. He finds inspiration – and perhaps genes as well – in the bi-centenarian bowhead whale.

But what if age really is mind over matter? A psychologist’s extraordinary thought experiment with septuagenarian men turns back the clock 20 years. Will it work on diseases such as cancer as well? 


Gordon Lithgow – Geneticist, Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Novato, California Manish Chamoli – Post-doctoral researcher, Buck Institute for Research on Aging George Church – Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, author of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves Ellen Langer – Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

First released April 6, 2015.

Microbes: Resistance is Futile  

ENCORE  You are what you eat. Whether you dine on kimchi, carnitas, or corn dogs determines which microbes live in your stomach. And gut microbes make up only part of your total micro biome. 

Find out how your microbes are the brains-without-brains that affect your health and even your mood. Also, why you and your cohorts are closer than you thought: new research suggests that you swap and adopt bugs from your social set.

Plus, the philosophical questions that are arise when we realize that we have more microbial DNA than human DNA.

And a woman who skipped soap and shampoo for a month to see what would grow on her.


Bill Miller – Physician and author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome Beth Archie – Biologist at the University of Notre Dame Nada Gligorov – Assistant professor of medical education at Mount Sinai Hospital Julia Scott – Freelance reporter working in San Francisco. Her article, “A Wash on the Wild Side” appeared in the May 22, 2014 issue of the New York Times Magazine. of the New York Times Magazine.

First released 

Science Fiction True  

ENCORE Don’t believe everything you see on TV or the movies. Science fiction is just a guide to how our future might unfold. It can be misleading, as anyone who yearns for a flying car can tell you. And yet, sometimes fantasy becomes fact. Think of the prototype cellphones in Star Trek.

We take a look at science that seems inspired by filmic sci-fi, for example scientists manipulating memory as in Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And despite his famous film meltdown, Charleton Heston hasn’t stopped the Soylent company from producing what it calls the food of the future.

Plus, why eco-disaster films have the science wrong, but not in the way you might think. And, what if our brains are simply wired to accept film as fact?


Steve Ramirez -Neuroscientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Rob Rhinehart – CEO and founder of Soylent Jason Mark – Editor of Earth Island Journal Jeffrey Zacks – Cognitive Neuroscientist, Washington University, St. Louis, and author of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies

First released December 22, 2014.

Skeptic Check: The Me in Measles  

ENCORE  Wondering whether to vaccinate your children? The decision can feel like a shot in the dark if you don’t know how to evaluate risk. Find out why all of us succumb to the reasoning pitfalls of cognitive and omission bias, whether we’re saying no to vaccines or getting a tan on the beach.

Plus, an infectious disease expert on why it may take a dangerous resurgence of preventable diseases – measles, whooping cough, polio – to remind us that vaccines save lives.

Also, a quaint but real vaccine fear: that the 18th century smallpox vaccine, made from cowpox, could turn you into a cow!

It’s our monthly look at critical thinking … but don’t take our word for it!


Paul Offit – Infectious disease specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Neil deGrasse Tyson – Astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City Adam Korbitz – Lawyer specializing in space law Andrew Maynard – Professor of environmental health science, director, Risk Science Center, University of Michigan
Elements Never Forget  

It’s elementary, Watson.  Things are in flux – from the elements in the air you breathe to party balloons.   We investigate the massive, historic loss of nitrogen from the atmosphere and meet the culprits behind a modern-day helium shortage. 

But it’s not all a disappearing act: be thankful that oxygen showed up in our atmosphere a few billion years ago.  Meanwhile, atom smashers have recently produced some new elements.  Their appearance was brief, but long enough to fill out the periodic table.

And perhaps the tastiest use of an element – one that gives Seth a chilly reception.


Inna Vishik – Postdoctoral fellow in physics at MIT Roland Pease – Science reporter in the U.K.  Mark Stoyer – Nuclear chemist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
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